Author: Ruth Sandwell
Editors: Ruth Sandwell, Dick Holland
Series Editor: Roland Case
A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 11-14
In the spring of 1734, a fire occurred in Montréal that destroyed a hospital and 45 houses on rue Saint-Paul. Two people—Marie-Josèphe dite Angélique, a Black slave, and her White lover, Claude Thibault—were accused of starting the fire. When Claude fled from the authorities, Angélique was left on her own to prove her innocence. Some twenty people gave testimony at her criminal trial, all of them convinced that Angélique set the fire, yet not one of them saw her do it. Angélique was found guilty and sentenced to death.
If no witnesses saw her start the fire, what evidence did they have to prove Angélique’s guilt? If you looked at the evidence, would you be convinced that she committed the crime?
In this MysteryQuest, you are invited to examine key pieces of evidence presented at the trial against Angélique to decide whether you are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that she set the fire.
Proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a technical term with a specific legal meaning. It refers to the level of certainty required to declare an accused person guilty of a crime. “Reasonable doubt” does not mean you are absolutely certain but it does mean that the body of evidence is sufficiently convincing that you would be willing to rely upon this kind of proof without hesitation when making decisions in your own life.
In reaching your decision, you should first familiarize yourself with the events leading up to the trial and conviction of Angélique, and then learn about four kinds of evidence. You will identify the evidence provided by a number of witnesses and consider how convincing this information is before reaching your own conclusion about Angélique’s guilt or innocence.
STEP 1: Familiarize yourself with the trial of Angélique
Your first task is to learn more about the events surrounding the fire and the trial of Angélique. Read the seven brief accounts written by the historians who created the “Torture and the Truth” website. These documents are listed as secondary sources in Evidence in the Case.
STEP 2: Recognize four kinds of evidence
Before evaluating the evidence brought against Angélique, it is useful to appreciate the kinds of evidence used to establish guilt or innocence. Below are brief explanations of four types of evidence that are commonly presented in a criminal trial. These various kinds of evidence are evaluated differently—in other words, some evidence is more believable than others, as far as a court of law is concerned. The kinds of evidence are listed from the weakest (or least believable) to the strongest (or most believable):
Can you identify which kind of evidence is represented by each of the following?
If you are unsure whether you correctly identified each piece of evidence, or if you want to learn more about these kinds of evidence, please read the briefing sheet Kinds of Evidence Offered in Court.
STEP 3: Finding and classifying the evidence
Before you classify and evaluate specific evidence brought against Angélique, it will be useful to add to your knowledge of the case by reading several historical documents prepared by court officials involved in the trial. Carefully read the following primary documents:
STEP 4: Exploring the evidence from the four witnesses
The four documents listed below are by key witnesses who gave testimony during the trial. Using these documents, complete the two-page chart Identifying and Classifying the Evidence by providing the following information:
The chart offers an example of how to answer these questions based on the reasons put forward by the King’s Prosecutor for arresting Angélique.
Your task is to use Identifying and Classifying the Evidence to identify and label the evidence provided by each of the following witnesses:
STEP 5: Drawing conclusions
After you have classified the kinds of evidence presented by the four witnesses, transfer the main evidence you have compiled in Identifying and Classifying the Evidence to Drawing Conclusions. Summarize the evidence according to its kind and then record possible questions or weaknesses for each piece of evidence. Think of the explanation for each kind of evidence to help you identify potential concerns about the reliability of the evidence provided by the witnesses.
Your final task is to decide whether Angélique is guilty or innocent based on the evidence offered by the four witnesses. Does this evidence provide you with “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” of Angélique’s guilt? Review the definition of “beyond a reasonable doubt” before coming to a conclusion. Indicate your conclusion on the scale (provided in Drawing Conclusions) ranging from “Overwhelming proof beyond any doubt that she is guilty” to “She is definitely innocent.” Offer four reasons why the evidence does or does not provide you with “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” that Angélique started the fire.
The evaluation rubric Assessing the Kinds of Evidence may be used to assess how well you were able to meet the following criteria:
The evaluation rubric Assessing the Quality of Evidence may be used to assess how well you were able to meet the following criteria:
What additional evidence would you need?
Describe the amount and kind of additional evidence you would need to establish whether or not Angelique was guilty of the crime.
Examine additional documents
Locate the testimony of other witnesses who were called to testify in Angélique’s trial and evaluate the kind and quality of their testimony.
Offer Angélique’s side of the story
Prepare a first person account written from Angélique’s point of view of events from lead up to the crime until her torture and death. Whether you believe she is guilty or innocent, provide a thoughtful and personal explanation of the events as Angélique might have seen them.
Colonial justice in New France
Prepare an assessment of the state of legal justice in New France. Draw about what you have learned from Angélique’s trial and consider the historical documents listed here to learn more about legal practices at the time.
Life in eighteenth century Montreal
Prepare a report comparing life and conditions of the following groups—free women, free men, and slaves—in eighteenth century Montreal. Read the historical documents listed here to learn more about each group.
Briefing Sheet: Kinds of Evidence Offered in Court
Activity Sheet: Identifying and Classifying the Evidence
Activity Sheet: Drawing Conclusions
Court documents of court officials
Court documents of witnesses